Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sexual Tension Is Sexier Than Sex

One of the sexiest scenes I've ever read in a novel can be found in Free Fire, a mystery by C.J. Box. In it, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett teams with Judy Demming, a National Park Service ranger, to investigate a killing in Yellowstone National Park.

Pickett, as usual, is away from home, which has been causing problems between him and his wife. Demming is bored with her job and her husband. The spouses are both good people, and their partners love them, but they are largely offstage while Pickett and Demming bond during their travels through the park. Their shared career frustrations, and clear respect for each other's investigative acumen, lead to a subtly crackling chemistry that neither wants to acknowledge and yet cannot deny.

In a painful, halting moment, they express unwilling vulnerability toward one another — and then mutually decide, with no small regret, that no physical lines will be crossed.

So nothing happens.

And yet, everything happens.

I remember reading the pages of that scene, and almost physically aching for these two people who do not exist. I wanted their chemistry to lead to consummation, and yet I didn't, and I found my pulse racing as Box skillfully sketched a portrait of two people who clearly hungered for one another, clearly needed one another ... and just as clearly needed to back away from one another.

Whether or not they actually had sex, I came to see, was beside the point. No sweaty grapplings or frantic poundings on the page could have compared, in person or on the page, with the exquisite emotional minuet that would have led up to it. It brought to mind something a friend once told me, something I've taken to heart and often repeated myself: What's sexy is what's implied, not what's shown.

The effectiveness of sex in literature, I've also come to see, is directly tied to the context in which it takes place. And there are an infinite number of variations on that. The best, to my mind, feature chemistry generated by character, not by looks. Getting hot for somebody good-looking in the absence of commonalities and conversational chemistry — let alone the necessary conflicts — is like mistaking an eighth-grade crush with mature love. It leads to payoffs that haven't been earned by the standards of publishable stories.

Taken another way: Think about what attracts you to someone in real life. Think about the qualities that person possesses that would lead you to want to have sex with them. Then think about the mechanics of sex in the absence of those qualities. Such as, two people who find each other physically appealing but have little in common, little reason to cross over into each other's orbits, collide over nothing more substantive than their own one-dimensional desires and can't conduct a conversation with any subtlety or subtext.

Wouldn't reading a scene like that bore you silly?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Jim Thomsen is a news editor at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash. He also is a partner in Proof Positive, a manuscript-editing and media-services business, and maintains
Reading Kitsap, a blog about the local literary scene. He can be reached at desolationisland@gmail.com ... or found, almost 24/7, on Facebook.



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12 comments :

  1. I totally agree! I love a good story where there is chemistry and anticipation.

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  2. Chemistry works. Not crossing lines works. Gratuitous sex (or any graphic sex) loses the author a reader.

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  3. Re: what is sexy is what is implied... this reminds me of a character from my real life, Miss Foote. She was a patient at a nursing home where I once worked as an aide, and I loved chatting with her when my chores were through. One day she said, "When you get married, don't parade around the house naked. Men like it when you leave a little something to the imagination." It was an odd comment--believe me, I arrived at work each day in a proper uniform--but nursing home residents are famous for blurting out odd comments. Even after 35 years, though, I remember that one.

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  4. One of the reasons I love film from the 40s. Implied rather than explicit scenes leave much for the imagination and provide a richer experience than pounding out the sweaty details.

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  5. I agree that sex in literature works best in a context. Then we can sometimes call it art. But I don't see anything wrong with sexual descriptions for the sole purpose of creating arousal. People are different; some get excited by candle lights and red wine, some by pornographic movies and some by erotica. Nothing wrong with either.

    Cold As Heaven

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  6. Anticipation is more than half the fun! Which is why TV shows that let characters get together after a few seasons lose viewers.

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  7. You are so right about context and I love the example you gave. That is exactly the same way my central characters were dancing around the whole attraction issue in One Small Victory.

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  8. Thank you for this excellent post. I haven't read the book, but from your evocative description it appears that CJ Box has created the perfect moral dilemma. And having the hero and heroine restrain themselves lifts the stakes and heightens the tension.
    It reminds me of my favourite 'moment' in the Andrew MacFadyen and Kiera Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy touches Lizzie's hand. There's a close-up shot of him shaking his hand after that electric brushing of palms. It's better than sex.

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  9. Linda, I think you're wrong about that. That's why there is a HUGE romance market and why Nora Roberts sells more books than just about any mystery writer. Raw sex doesn't lose readers - it just creates a new market that's huge. Each person's opinion is just that... not industry fact.

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  10. Some of the best sexual tension I've read has been platonic chemistry between same sex characters. I find strong friendship in literature affects me more deeply than sex.

    Elle
    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

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  11. Yeah, it's not too difficult to guess what happened just before Rick Blaine lit that cigarette. The best argument I ever heard against a remake of Casablanca is that Ben-n-Jen bangin' would have detracted from the movie.

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  12. I agree. Sorry I have missed this series. I've been sick.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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